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3 Lessons Daniel LaRusso, the Karate Kid, Can Teach Us About Mentorship

In their recent case note, Exploring the Future of Entrepreneurship through Acquisition, Professor A.J. Wasserstein and investor Jeff Stevens predict a decrease in the level of investor support and mentoring for entrepreneurs due to the expanding size of portfolios and the increasing professionalization of the industry. However, I believe mentoring has declined more significantly than the community might be ready to acknowledge.

When I speak privately with advanced searchers, they often feel like they are not receiving (or did not receive) the full benefits promised by their investors when it comes to non-financial support like mentoring. There seems to be a mismatch between what investors perceive as mentoring and what searchers expect to receive over the long haul of their journey.

Perhaps, because Cobra Kai is up for an Emmy, I was thinking about the Karate Kid.  Below are three lessons from the original Karate Kid movie that might inspire you as you consider your mentors for your search.

  1.  Determine the Type of Mentor You Have

I suspect that searchers believe their mentoring will be the equivalent of Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid movie – someone who manifests as the sage, educator, and trainer, providing just the right guidance at the right time plus being there for the big moments whether good or bad. Yet, recall that Daniel LaRusso initially wanted Mr. Miyagi to confront the teacher of the bullies at the Dojo directly; he wasn’t initially seeking a trainer.

Mentoring in American business culture often falls short of the Mr. Miyagi ideal; it typically involves access to a network and periodic availability for meetings. Therefore, it’s crucial to understand the kind of mentor you have.

If you look online, you’ll see articles describing 5, 6, 7 and 8 different types of mentoring. For this post, I refer to this article: 8 Types of mentors and their role in the workplace, where the author describes these types:

  1. The Advisor
  2. The Protector
  3. The Coach
  4. The Connection Broker
  5. The Challenger
  6. The Clarifier
  7. The Sponsor
  8. The Affirmer

In conversations with underrepresented individuals, they often assume their mentors or bosses are sponsors, which aligns with cultural expectations like “lifting as we climb.” This expectation can lead to shock and disillusionment when they discover their mentors or bosses are not lift them up and have not actively advocated for them. My career has benefitted from wonderful sponsors across race and gender, but I recognize my experience may be the exception.

My Investor and Advisor Wheel, inspired by Jan Simon, can help you assess and plan your Board or Advisory Board. Once you’ve identified who you have and want, you’ll want to initiate a relationship and make the ask.

 2) Initiate the Relationship and Make the Ask

The mentee is responsible forming and driving the relationship. For more on this, see my article on Building Relationships where I discuss the differences between transactional and relational relationships and the implications across cultures.

Once you feel comfortable making the ask, you should establish your prospective mentor’s:

  • Available time commitment
  • Their communication preferences  (email, phone, or text)
  • Other areas of expertise they may have
  • A cadence for meeting on a recurring basis

Scheduling consistent appointments can be key to making the most of limited bandwidth and establishing a communication rhythm.

 3) Do the Work

In The Karate Kid, LaRusso shows up for his first lesson, demonstrates his commitment by doing the assigned tasks like painting the house. Of course, this being Movieland, he learns the basics within four days. Mr. Miyage is quite curmudgeonly, but for most mentors it is highly gratifying when they give you guidance and you follow it. When your mentor observes your progress, whether it’s during one-on-one sessions, quarterly board, or advisory board meetings, they will recognize that acquiring a new skill is a gradual process and will appreciate your consistent effort.

There a few things that can derail a mentoring relationship.

Love matches may be rare. What if you’re uneasy with your mentor, lacking that “zing” as they say in “Hotel Transylvania”? That’s perfectly fine; it’s a common scenario. Early on in my career, a senior woman offered to be my mentor, but our world views couldn’t have been more different – her interests lay in 17th-century Baroque music, while I preferred U2 concerts. Initially, our differences led to awkward interactions, and I eventually let the mentorship lapse. Looking back, I regret not seeking her advice or learning from her experiences, realizing too late that a mentor need not be a friend to be a valuable guide.

Any Small Action Is Better Than None. A serious issue is when the advice given is repeatedly ignored—not even addressed or challenged. Over time, I’ve learned to be selective in giving guidance. I try to be thoughtful and focus on what I feel will most advance my mentees. So, if I’ve provided time-sensitive advice and see no action or progress, it can have an impact on the relationship.

If you haven’t tackled the tasks from your last session with your mentor, be straightforward about it. If you disagree with the advice, express it: “I considered doing XYZ, but after some thought, it didn’t seem to fit my situation due to ABC. Could we talk about this?”

For instance, if I’ve dispensed advice three or four different times in as many ways over six months to a year, I start to question the person’s willingness and/or ability to make the necessary changes or grasp the new skills. On balance, I think it’s better for the mentee to be seen as thoughtful and engaged than stubborn and ignoring.  So, what do you when you are putting in the work but your mentor is not seeing the hoped-for results? A good mentor should steer you toward additional helpful resources.

Use Consistency as Life Raft. Putting in the work also means setting up time to meet with your mentor. There’s a tendency that for mentees to hunker down and avoid their mentors during challenging times. That’s why I think establishing a steady cadence at the outset with your mentor is best.  Even if you both end up canceling the sessions 50% or even 75% of time, that one instance when you need them doesn’t feel as enormous as making a surprise appointment out of the blue.

Cadence also helps because an experienced mentor may be able to spot troubled waters and give you guidance that saves you from drowning before you get pulled into a rip current.  It’s disheartening when someone seeks help too late when earlier intervention might have made a difference. We could have strategized together, or I could have connected them to a helpful person within my network.

Conclusion

As mentees, we must take an active role in understanding the kind of mentorship on offer, initiating and maintaining these relationships, and putting in the effort to listen to and act on the guidance provided